The England of Eric Ravilious
Freda Constable with Sue Simon
Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2003
Paperback reissue. 38 p + 64 plates. ISBN 978-0853318804. £22.50
Reviewed by Richard Moss
Culture 24, Brighton
When Freda Constable’s England of Eric Ravilious first appeared in 1982, the modest volume was one of only a handful covering an English artist whose reputation was yet to rise to the position it is today. These days Ravilious’s paintings are enjoying a long and sustained resurgence; in Britain prints of his 1930s landscape watercolours, his war artwork and his iconic lithographs serve a growing thirst for a vision of rural England on the tipping point of modernisation – and war. Paradoxically it is the latter and his work as an Official War Artist that began his rehabilitation as an important English landscape painter, helped in part by the 2003/4 Imperial War Museum exhibition Imagined Realities, which kick-started the Ravilious bandwagon. But Constable’s book laid the foundations.
Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) died at the age of 39 when the Air Sea Rescue mission he was accompanying disappeared off the coast of Iceland and today the idea of Ravilious, the only war artist to die on active service during World War Two, is framed by this experience of wartime. Even the watercolours of the peaceful undulating hills and coastlines of England seem to take on a resonance informed by the impending war.
When we look at his Uffington Horse, The Wilmington Long Man or even the rolling landscapes of the Sussex and Wiltshire downs we see a nostalgic representation of the English way of life. It is something Ravilious was keenly aware as he painted these great chalk figures just before they were turfed over to deprive Hitler’s Luftwaffe of key navigational points in the English landscape.
By this time Ravilious had already enjoyed great success as a wood engraver, a book illustrator for the Curwen press and as a prolific and gifted designer of Wedgwood pottery. But in his short lifetime his landscape watercolours were comparatively neglected and Constable’s book was the first to really give them their due and to attempt to place them in a meaningful context. Constable and her co-researcher Sue Simon, who sadly died before its 1982 publication, identified the multitalented Ravilious first and foremost as a “topographical artist” in the tradition of Paul Sandby, Francis Towne and John Varley. Conceding that he was an artist whose work reflected the times and who lived through the two tumultuous decades, she attributes to him the three qualities of great watercolour artists (as assigned by poet and art critic Laurence Binyon): “ease, lightness and spontaneity”.
Constable knows her subject, and much of the received wisdom about Ravilious the artist that we have absorbed today, you will find here in her succinct essay of 20-odd pages. Of course she had an advantage, in the 1980s many of the key figures now synonymous with the Ravilious story – including Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, and Helen Binyon, were still alive and they gave their time generously. From Bawden we learn that Ravilious was “Indolent, humorous, easy going – plainly a charmer” and from another student friend how he was “an excellent dancer, tennis player and a man of great taste”.
But as well as establishing the convivial image of Ravilious the charming Lothario, Constable also plots an arc of creativity that begins with the early watercolours of the early 1930s, identifying for us the first “work of magic” (Strawberry Nets, 1932) before progressing through his love of abandoned farm machinery and the developing sense of space and solidity in the downland and coastline works. Guiding us through his experiments with etching, woodcuts, the designs for Wedgwood and the lithography of the mid 1930s she arrives convincingly at the point where he was at the “fully ripe stage of his painting career”.
Some of the best landscapes from this period are reproduced in the colour plates, including Wiltshire Landscape, Uffington Horse, Wilmington Giant and the Train Carriage which, says Constable, “might be taken as Ravilious’s masterpiece”. Also present are the seeds of a modernist interpretation via the dark ambiguities found in his interiors. Among the 32 colour plates are Farmhouse Bedroom, The Bedstead and Garden Flowers on Cottage Table, each of them possessing a haunting sense of someone having just left the picture.
The later war experience, which fused the landscape vision with the machinery of war – the ships, the propeller screws and the submarine interiors – reveals just how much Ravilious enjoyed his time as a war artist. In 1940 he was made an honorary captain in the Royal Marines and began work at the Royal Navy barracks at Chatham and Sheerness. He experienced the sea battles off the coast of Norway in 1940 before a stint at the Navy base at Gosport gave him his first taste of life in submarines, which led to the now famous set of submarine lithographs. Submarines fascinated Ravilious, who described them as having “the complexity of a Swiss Clock”, but he was soon fascinated equally by aircraft. As Constable points out “he was to spend the rest of his life painting aircraft, and he brought coherence into these pictures which concentrates less on the detail of the parts than on the total effect.”
She describes how Ravilious “shows the exhilaration of flight, the force which takes one out of contact with the old land-bound life”. Spitfires “fairly crackle in the waiting alertness” while his painting of a biplane training aircraft is described as “taking its doll-like crew for a pleasant ride”. As Constable reminds us, “his pictures are concerned with the visual experience and the truth he understood and wished to paint.” It makes for a pretty succinct and convincing argument.
Some excellent books have accompanied the revival in interest in Eric Ravilious, notably the James Russell-penned monographs of the Mainstone Press, but Constable’s modest monograph clearly fixes the idea of Ravilious, the landscape painter with a distinctive vision of England. It was a key part of the revival of his reputation and it remains one of the best places to start.
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